Riding along with the Rust Belt Riders
Updated: Nov 16, 2018
Over the last month, I spent some time with the Rust Belt Riders, learning the daily ins and outs of these Cuyahoga composters. If you’re unaware of the Rust Belt Riders (RBR), let me provide a brief introduction. RBR is a small business in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood of Cleveland. It is comprised of five individuals that can best be described as food waste warriors. With the slogan, “Feed People, Not Landfills,” RBR is committed to reducing food waste’s impact in landfills. RBR diverts and converts food waste into a biologically active soil amendment through the process of composting.
RBR began in 2014 with founders Dan and Michael humbly picking up food waste from a few select forward-thinking restaurants on their bicycles, hence the “Riders” in their company name. Eventually, RBR picked up more clients and few large ones, which necessitated a move from bicycles to vehicles and the hiring of three employees. They now perform pickups in either a cargo van or a delivery box truck. They have also diversified and now include educational and zero waste events as part of their product line.
All in all, I shadowed three of the five Rust Belt Riders to see what makes this company tick. Their utilitarianism was impressive. Everybody has their specific roles, but everybody does a little bit of everything. Additionally, the whole team is very aware of what both the left and right hand is doing. There didn’t seem to be any, “that’s so and so’s job,” which I found refreshing.
During my first visit, I interviewed co-founder, Dan Brown, at their relatively new office just north of St. Clair Avenue off of East 55th. This was a “how’s it going” type of interview, and Dan was gleaming. Part of his energy stemmed from the new Rust Belt Rider branded compost bags that had recently arrived at company headquarters. He also seemed unusually satisfied with a small vibrating machine that shakes and sifts their finished compost. Apparently, sourcing this machine was more difficult than imagined.
Apart from seeing the huge piles of steaming compost in various stages of decomposition, I learned a lot of other details. Probably most importantly is the fact that at 40% of food in America is wasted. Wasted as in sent to the landfill, where it belches methane, a potent greenhouse gas. This is where RBR intends to make their positive change in society as well as their bread and butter.
Another important tidbit was learning that an unregulated compost facility in Ohio is limited to 300 square feet per site, which is a major hurdle when your company wants to pick up food waste in all of Cuyahoga County. The current solution to this predicament is outsourcing some of their dumping to Kurtz Brothers (who then composts the food waste on their own accord). Hopefully soon enough, RBR’s reliance on Kurtz Brothers will lessen as the Ohio EPA is considering upping the size of an unregulated compost facility to 500 square feet.
When I asked Dan what RBR needs, his response was all brass tacks and nothing out of the ordinary for a small business. Simply put, RBR needs more customers on both ends of the food waste cycle. To clarify, RBR needs more food waste pick up customers, and RBR needs more compost purchasers. Compost is sold both in sifted bags and by the cubic yard.
On my next visit, I shadowed Nathan Rutz, whose title isn’t, but in my opinion should be Wizard of Compost. Accordingly, Nathan is responsible for the actual composting at RBR. He trained with renowned soil guru, Dr. Elaine Ingham and teems with enthusiasm when discussing soil biology and food waste transformation.
I thought I was going to be getting my hands dirty this day, but rather I was transported back to my college biology lab. Which is to say that most of my morning was spent looking through a microscope at soil and actual compost samples. What appeared to me as a range of strange shapes akin to a Jackson Pollock painting, Nathan identified as micro-organisms and minerals. The mycorrhizae fungi were the easiest to identify with their long thread-like structure, but in no time I was able to recognize flagellates, protozoa, and nematodes to name a few.
As an agriculture guy, I’ve been trained to think in terms of nutrients. So, I was somewhat shocked when Nathan described the goal for RBR’s compost as low in nutrients, but high in micro-organisms. He later clarified that RBR’s goal is to have the nutrients in the organisms, continuously being cycled via the soil food web.
After a couple hours in the lab, we went to check out the compost piles, but I still wasn’t able to get my hands dirty. Rather, RBR is at the scale these days that their compost turning is performed with a front-end loader. It looked awfully fun to drive, but due to insurance purposes, I was unable to get a hands-on tutorial.
Some of the piles were steaming. Thermometers had been inserted to read temperatures. According to the National Organic Program, a compost pile needs turned at least five times over the course of 10-15 days with a temperature above 131 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, the thermometers are a critical piece of composting infrastructure. On occasion and to my surprise, the compost piles can reach up to 160 degrees and can take up to a month to cool down. To hasten the cooling down, giant PVC pipes are inserted into the piles like little chimneys dissipating heat.
I spent my third day with Route Manager, Jesse, in the box truck, performing pickups and container switch-outs. Perhaps, this was the day that I’d finally get my hands dirty. One of the first things that I learned is that there is a lot of planning that occurs when managing a route. Some customers need almost daily pickups; whereas, others need it only weekly. Then when you couple this with a city center, a University Circle, and various points outside these concentrated areas, it gets to be complicated fairly quick.
After a half day on the truck, I recognized that Jesse is a beast of man, able to lift 107 pounds of food waste without even breaking a sweat. He informed me that occasionally the containers can weigh up to 300 pounds (and that’s why the truck has a lift). I found the variety of companies paying for their food waste to be hauled and composted inspiring. There were institutions like the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and University Hospitals, but there were also smaller firms like Marigold Catering and Bookhouse Brewing.
At this point, the truck was full. We had switched out 30 empty containers for 30 full ones. Due to that 300 square foot law on active compost piles, a portion of RBR’s food waste conversion is outsourced to Kurtz Brothers. So, we tripped down I-77S to Independence. We went into the valley and under some bridges. We made our way around commercial tumblers, giant backhoes, asphalt piles and debris mountains to a little sliver of Kurtz Brothers, reserved solely for RBR.
We roared open the door of the box truck and readied the containers to be dumped off of its back end. It is at this point where the job got gross. Week old food waste can have an odor, and maggots are all in a day’s work. Jesse seemed completely immune to this discomfort. In no time, the containers were emptied. Jesse notified a member of the Kurtz team, who promptly drove over with a backhoe and woodchips and tumbled them into a pile to start the composting process. And just like that, we were off to repeat the process once again that afternoon…
In conclusion, I’d like give a hearty thanks to Dan Brown and the rest of the Rust Belt Riders for giving me such complete access to their operation and their willingness to share enthusiasm and knowledge. Here at Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District, we see RBR as critical component to increasing soil health and community education in northeast Ohio. If you or your company is interested in starting a compost program or hosting a zero waste event, we highly encourage you to contact RBR. See link below.